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Precarity: Commentary by Anne Allison

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Precarity."

Precarity once seemed the fate of the less fortunate. Now it seems that all our lives are precarious—even when, for the moment, our pockets are lined. In contrast to the mid-twentieth century, when poets and philosophers of the global north felt caged by too much stability, now many of us, north and south, confront the condition of trouble without end.

—Anna Tsing

“Life without the promise of stability” is how Anna Tsing (2015, 2) defines precarity: a modality of being marked by indeterminacy that is less the exception than the condition of our times. Uncertain about where/when/how one will make do in the present, the precarious lack handrails for anchoring the future as well. In this uncertainty of time, where everyday efforts don’t align with a teleology of progressive betterment, living can be often just that. Not leading particularly anywhere, lives get lived nonetheless. As Tsing (2015, 17–25) contends in The Mushroom at the End of the World, to get a sense of precarity—to survive it and to think through it with social analysis—requires “arts of noticing” driven by curiosity. The old toolkits no longer work, and we need to see life in different terms to understand the ways it breaks down but also grows anew amidst the blasted ruins of capitalism.

This is precisely what the six authors in this Curated Collection have so beautifully rendered: ethnographic forays into terrains of precarious living where things hang together or fall apart, according to tenuous templates that get brokered less in terms of possible futures than what Clara Han (2011, 8) calls the “indeterminacy of lived relations within the present.” In all six articles, we are taken into the lives of people struggling: to get by, survive a kidnapping, keep their families and homes together, manage the boredom of no job, or the stigma and stink of working in a garbage dump. The present is the temporal mode of preoccupation: what Kathleen Millar (2014) calls the “precarious present” and what Haydar Al-Mohammad (2012) traces as the “precariousness of life” in the temporality of a kidnapping that Jabar manages—if barely—to survive. The present is all-consuming here, in part because just getting by demands all one’s energies but also because a sometime/someplace else has been shut off. This is true for the homeless men in Bucharest who, without the jobs that were a staple in Romania’s communist past, feel “cast aside” in a life trajectory of downward mobility. As Bruce O’Neill (2014) notes, their idiom of existence is boredom; they are too keenly aware of the passing of time in which nothing moves (or moves them) at all.

The future is distant or opaque. It is not quite an endpoint, that which one works toward as a horizon of expectation. If that was the narrative of modernity, precarity generates different rhythms and forms of storytelling. In his study of homelessness in Philadelphia, Robert Desjarlais (1997) wrote that living on the streets forestalls narrative altogether: this kind of life doesn’t congeal in a story at all. Kathleen Stewart (2012) takes up this issue in her article on precarity’s forms, which considers how precarity—what Stewart calls an emergent phenomenon—registers in one’s sense of being through recognition, movements, materialities, and composition. Worlding comes from those routines, gestures, and surfaces of everyday life that don’t necessarily come together in a linear, cumulative fashion, but get associated and sensed—sometimes, most achingly, when they fall apart, as with the “hard precarity of unworlding” (Stewart 2012, 520) experienced by Stewart’s mother after the death of her husband. To be an ethnographer of precarity demands a sensitivity that Stewart calls attunement, in contrast with forms of knowing and argument that are more representational, ascribing moral or political significance to particular behavior. Or, as Naisargi Dave (2014) puts it, the pain of others demands a response in the witnessing humans do as they see and feel the suffering of animals.

In studying precarity, these authors inhabit the skin of those experiencing it. The ethnography and the writing, in each case, are exemplary. Fine-tuned, furrowing the ground, the essays follow the lines of the experience itself—the “unbearable volume” of music her addicted son-in-law plays as Sra. Flora abides her “pure nerves” (Han 2011, 19, 7), the whirling of vertigo in Jabar’s head as he endures torture by conjuring up his family (Al-Mohammad 2012), the nausea and fatigue of working the dumps that somaticize stigma (Millar 2014), the eyes of a horse half eaten by crows that move one woman, then another, into animal activism (Dave 2014). But watching/sensing/witnessing the pain of the precarious is not all that these authors are doing with their ethnographic sensibilities, exquisite as they are. Ethnography drives theory here, the coming to terms with what radical uncertainty implies for the living but also for life itself.

As Han (2011, 8) learns from the working-class Chileans she studied in La Pincoya, people struggle over “the possible,” driven to assemble and reassemble some semblance of family and home amidst the scramble of day-to-day getting by. Taking loans, buying on credit, purchasing consumer goods, these are all gestures that can constitute care: efforts to make time and borrow another life—as in basic life itself. As philosopher Judith Butler (2009, 14) notes about the “social network of hands” defining the ontological condition of human existence (a precariousness that she distinguishes from precarity, the differential distribution of precariousness by such factors as class, citizenship, and race), the ties we have to others continually factor into how we manage (or do not) to survive every day. Holding imaginatively onto his family is what keeps Jabar alive during torture, Al-Mohammad (2012) writes: a form of making time, making life, as well. In the decisions many catadores make to stay or return to working in the garbage dump instead of taking more regularized jobs in town, Millar (2014, 49)  sees a “politics of detachment” fueled by “relational autonomy.” The dump is a site of suffering but also a refuge that allows flexibility, even a form of freedom, in the precarious lives of workers. But for the animal activists in Dave’s (2014) study, the aim is not freedom but an ever deeper surrender to unequal relations of obligation and responsibility. Exfoliating their social skin, breaking the fiction of sovereign subjectivity, these activists not only witness but enter into the pain of a suffering animal; to be intimate across species is a politics of becoming-animal.

Life amid indeterminacy, precarity certainly involves hardship and pain. But it also calls upon and calls forth deep resourcefulness and imagination. In this, as the authors so powerfully suggest, precarity—in the ways people are responding, adapting, and also refusing by remaking the conditions of precarious existence—is changing the lived world, both for and beyond human existence. “One can sense,” I have argued, “if one senses optimistically, an emergent potential in attempts to humanly and collectively survive precarity: a new form of commonwealth (commonly remaking the wealth of sociality), a biopolitics from below” (Allison 2013, 18). Anthropology has much to contribute on this front. This Curated Collection is a wonderful start.


Allison, Anne. 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Al-Mohammad, Hayder. 2012. “A Kidnapping in Basra: the Struggles and Precariousness of Life in Postinvasion Iraq.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 4: 597–614.

Butler, Judith. 2009. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? New York: Verso.

Dave, Naisargi. 2014. “Witness: Humans, Animals, and the Politics of Becoming.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 3: 433–56.

Desjarlais, Robert. 1997. Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood among the Homeless. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Han, Clara. 2011. “Symptoms of Another Life: Time, Possibility, and Domestic Relations in Chile’s Credit Economy.” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 1: 7-33.

Millar, Kathleen. 2014. “The Precarious Present: Wageless Labor and Disrupted Life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 1: 32–53.

O’Neill, Bruce. 2014. “Cast Aside: Boredom, Downward Mobility, and Homelessness in Post-Communist Bucharest.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 1: 8–31.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2012. “Precarity’s Forms.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3: 518–25.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.